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The Gut Brain Connection

Jan 29, 2023

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The Gut Brain Connection

Our gut has its own nervous system called the enteric nervous system. This system sends signals all day to the brain to do things we need to do such as make hydrochloric acid and digestive enzymes to help digest food . On top of this we have over 500 million nerves in our stomach. These nerves communicate with the brain throughout the day, and send signals through neurotransmitters and hormone signaling molecules to do the  things that we need to do to digest our food properly.

Within the gut there are a couple of important chemicals  known as serotonin and dopamine that directly influence our mood. Most of us know these to be in our brain, but actually 90% of our serotonin and 50% of our dopamine are actually made in our intestine!

Why are Serotonin and Dopamine so important?

They're responsible for things like our mood and our happiness, without them we have more anxiety and depression. 

Serotonin also has a direct influence on the motility of our stomach, meaning keeping things moving through at the correct pace. Ever notice when you're really anxious, you feel it in your stomach, and you end up in the bathroom a little more frequently than normal… that’s that nervous stomach we speak of. 


Dopamine influences our mood as well as our mental sharpness and clarity. So these two things are directly related. And if you think about IBS, irritable bowel syndrome, not to be confused with inflammatory bowel disease, we've studied that it's directly related to all these nerves in our stomach. So the nerves signal us to do things like..go to the bathroom. When we are stressed or anxious (aka fight or flight mode), these signals get crossed and the key components we need to help with digestion fail to be made.


Let’s take a further look inside. Inside our gastrointestinal tract there Is this ecosystem called the microbiome, and this microbiome influences so much of our health. We want our microbiome to be filled with healthy gut bacteria. When there's damage to this system , or an imbalance of good bacteria to bad bacteria ,  it throws our whole ecosystem off , weakens the lining of our intestines and can eventually lead to something called increased intestinal permeability, aka “leaky gut.”


A huge culprit of this disruption is stress, or cortisol.


Cortisol is made by our adrenal glands, which are these little glands that sit on top of our kidneys. During times of stress, our adrenals spit out excess cortisol. But cortisol like anything else needs to be in perfect balance. We don't want too much of it, or too little. 


Let’s review quickly about cortisol ….


Cortisol is made in times of stress to protect us, it’s our flight or fight response. If you were being chased by a tiger, cortisol would rise and allow you to run or fight. So it rises, then it's supposed to be able to come back down, that's a normal response .


Here’s the thing, the body cannot tell the difference between actual Stress ( being chased by a tiger), Or perceived stress (our thoughts). So instead of these rises and falls, cortisol tends to stay elevated for much longer than we need.


Each time we produce cortisol the body has a choice to make. It says, ok I need to fight so I’m going to send all my energy to my vital organs ...the heart, lungs , and brain . So what takes a hit...our intestines. I mean why does the body need to worry about digesting food when we are in fight mode??? So our digestion is significantly impaired! On top of this,   The continuous release of cortisol weakens the intestinal lining, causing it to spring a leak leading to leaky gut.


What exactly is leaky gut ??

Leaky gut occurs when the intestinal lining for lack of better terms springs a leak, so things that are supposed to be pulled out and eliminated are leaking through into our blood stream. These are known as Endotoxins, and are very damaging to the body. What happens when toxins enter the bloodstream, we start to see things like skin rashes, brain fog, bloating, inflammation, hair loss, anxiety and depression just to name a few .


This disrupts the microbiome, that ecosystem I mentioned and now we have an imbalance of bad bacteria vs. good bacteria . 


Ok back to the brain connection ...


So remember how I said most of our serotonin and dopamine are made in our intestine? Well now we have a disruption in this production aka our happy hormones . We also make most of your melatonin in the Gut, this hormone is responsible for helping us sleep! Often the sleep problems we have can also be related to the gut, which impairs healing ...insert vicious cycle!

So what do we do?


Physical healing also involves healing the mind. As you now see… it’s all connected . So we must start there. I know this is easier said than done, but here are some practical tips!


Practice mindfulness : 

  • Meditstion and gratitude journaling are two really great ways to slow the mind down. Meditation works on the parasympathetic nervous system ( calming) so can actually work to lower cortisol levels!

Slow down :

  • When you're dealing with extreme gut issues, going and doing a high intensity workout is probably not the best thing you can do. When you are doing intense workouts you’re increasing your cortisol, and you're just adding to the problem. Slow down and listen to your body! If you're trying to heal your body, you need to give it the time and space to do so . Opt for long walks, slow weight lifting, Pilates , yoga or swimming. Bottom line, if your body is constantly being injured , or screaming at you to give it a break...listen to it! Intense workouts in a time of stress will be like running a 5k and following it with a cheeseburger and fries...essentially useless. Use this time to heal and replenish your body!

• Adaptogens: I understand stress is inevitable , but we can certainly help our body adapt and handle the stress coming in. An adaptogen is a plant that helps your body adapt to stress. These ancient herbs have been used for years and are a staple in my daily routine . 

  • Ashwagandha: to help the body cope with daily stress, and as a general tonic
  • Siberian ginseng: to provide energy and help overcome exhaustion
  • Holy basil: to promote relaxation, relieve stress and anxiety
  • Rhodiola rosea: to lower anxiety, fatigue, and depression
  • Cordyceps: a specific type of mushroom which is said to fight stress and help balance hormones


Remove stressors: 

  • It's time to do the hard work. Look at your life and see what is adding unnecessary stress to your life? Where can you slow down? What can you eliminate? Often this involves relationships that are no longer serving you. Listen I don’t pretend to have it all together. But I know one thing for sure through my healing journey..until you remove the things in your life bringing you down, it will be impossible to heal. As you see from the information above, our minds control so much of our healing. 
  • Inflammatory foods: Yes, foods are a stressor on your body. Start by removing processed foods, fried foods and inflammatory oils from your diet and notice the change in your mental clarity from that switch alone!


Try these changes today !